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June 24, 2008

The persuasive power of neuroscience

The March issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience contains an article stimulated by the  frequent appearance of news stories announcing the latest brain signature -- for love, aggression, greed, lying, etc. A group of researchers at Yale decided to investigate whether people can distinguish solid claims about these associations from poorly substantiated ones. The researchers wrote explanations for well-documented psychological phenomena. Some versions presented scientifically accepted rationales and sound reasoning. Other explanations were circular. People with no training in psychology or neuroscience distinguished the good from bad -- until an utterly irrelevant mention of the physical brain was added. The bad explanations became far more believable when they included a mention of neuroscience, while the good accounts got only a slight boost. People with advanced training in cognitive science were immune to this "seductive allure of neuroscience."

Does this finding have some bearing on the law's demand for validation of scientific evidence? Does it support a distinction between "soft" psychological testimony and testimony about brain imaging results?



Weisberg, D. S.; Keil, F. C.; Goodstein, J.; Rawson, E.; & Gray, J. (2008). The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-477.

The description of the study is adapted from the May/June 2008 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, p. 38.

June 24, 2008 | Permalink


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